Erie tattoo artists reflect on business during COVID-19. Here’s how they’re moving forward –

Sanctuary Tattoo on handling COVID-19

Troy Koch, co-owner of Sanctuary Tattoo, shares how Sanctuary opened during the coronavirus pandemic. Business has been steady and he is hopeful for what's to come post-COVID-19.

Baylee DeMuth, Erie Times-News

Fresh ink is flowing again atErie County tattoo parlors. But the pandemic forced changes that make it harder to get time under the needle and shop owners say the changes mightstick around.

For sometattoo shops in Erie County, the pandemicforced owners to shift to an appointment-only model. While that change aided in the overall one-on-one relationship with the client, it has led to an overflow of bookings andlong waits for those eager to get their next tattoo.

As COVID-19 restrictions eased this spring and tattoo parlors reopened their doors, the demand for fresh ink skyrocketed, Erie County tattoo artists say.

Whilethedemand for fresh ink grows, shops reflect on what it took to get here when the future of the tattoo industry was fading.

When Troy Kochcouldn't tattoo during the 2020 shutdown, he wasn't sure if he'd ever pick up aneedle again.

For the 28-year-old artist, the coronavirus pandemic brought a lot of uncertainty, as it did for many others. But time away from his craft helped Koch focus on one of his biggest endeavors yet opening his own tattoo shop.

Despite the risks and fears that came with starting a new business, Koch and several other artists took a leap of faith and launchedSanctuary Tattoo.

"What got us started was just realizing that we dont have to wait and we have the full capabilityof doing it, even with these trying times," said Koch, co-owner of Sanctuary.

Located at 3304 Liberty St. in Erie, the shop opened inSeptember. According to the Erie County Department of Health, the number of tattoo businesses in Erie County stayed constantthroughout 2020 into 2021 at about 26.

For the most part, tattooing under normal circumstances compared with COVID-19 restrictions wasn't a huge change for Erik Mueller.

"On a day-to-day level a lot of things are not terribly different than they were beforehand," said Mueller, co-owner of Sanctuary. "Were taking extra precautions, but compared to some shops Ive worked at, weve been more in-depth with trying to keep things sanitary."

Mueller and the other artists take pride in cleanliness and professionalism. But even with flying colors from the health department, Sanctuary still experienced the negative effects of COVID-19.

"We did lose a bit of the community aspect of things. A lot of people want to bring someonewith them, but for the first sixmonths or so of the business we couldnt allow it," Mueller said of pandemic-driven occupancy limits. "It was a little on the quiet side in here for a long time."

On top of an already sparse clientele, the artistsran into a streak of cancellations, Mueller said. But Mueller notes all four artists who tattoo at Sanctuary hadloyal followings that helped get them through those rough periods.

As the business finds its footing and COVID-19 restrictions lighten, Mueller has also seen an influx of those wanting tattoos.

"The only downside, really, is weve gotten to a point already where were too busy," Mueller said. "I feel like being busy can be both a blessing and a curse, but overall weve got a good thing going."

To help with the demand, Sanctuary is appointment-only for the foreseeable future, Koch said. While the artists are already busy enough with the clientele they do have, Koch sees the influx of clientele as a good thing overall.

"I like to think its because people have spent a year being cooped up and realized maybe its time to do things that they enjoy a little more, so theyre prioritizing things like this," Koch said.

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For Jesse Brace, working through thepandemic helped him focus on what was most important: his clients.

Brace is theowner and sole artist ofTattarrattat Body Art Studio in Edinboro. Nearing itsthird anniversary, Brace's studio managed to get through the shutdowns and safety precautions of COVID-19 without havingmuch worry the business wouldn't survive.

"I wasnt too concerned when we reopened. Iknew thered be changes and adaptations wed have to do, but business-wise its been pretty busy," Brace said.

Adjusting to all of the appointments that needed to be rescheduled while also attempting to take on new ones became a major challenge for the 39-year-old artist.

Potential clients caninquire about a piercing or tattoo through multiple mediums such as Brace's personal and business Facebook Messenger accounts, Instagram, his email and more.

"I use my personal time in the morning trying to answer all those requests and some of them dont hear from me for a couple days," Brace said.

Before the pandemic, walk-ins were more common at Tattarrattat, but due to capacity limits and the studio's compact size, Brace began asking clients to schedule a tattoo or piercing ahead of time.

While his studio lost some of the traditional aspects of a same-day tattoo, Brace was able to focus more on the one-on-one relationship with his clients.

"If I'm with a clientthe door is locked," Brace said. "The health concern and focus on the individual ... are major takeaways for me."

As Brace looks ahead, he sees his business continuing to be appointment-only, but plans to carve out certain times in the week for walk-ins and assessments.

Nick Hanna said he learned a long time ago that tattoo artists tattoo until theydie.

In that mindset, Hanna, owner of Game Over Tattoo in Edinboro, put everything he had into his shop.

"I basically drained all my personal accounts to keep everything afloat," Hanna said. "But you just have to keep going. And my guys, theyre a good support team."

Despite Hanna's significant financial investment in his shop, he wasn't worried. Hisfellow tattoo artists helped out whenever they could.

"In this job, our hands are our money," Hanna said. "My guys hated me at first,but I pushed on them to have (money)tucked away. Id ask if they ever had any extra money if they wanted to pitch in. And they did, no hesitation."

Hanna also owns the building where Game Over Tattoo is located,112 Meadville St. During the pandemic, he did not charge his tenants rent for four months, believing it would've been"like bleeding blood from a stone."

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"Everyone looked at me crazy for not charging rent, but Ihave good faith in good people," Hanna said. "Its just one of those things.Itll come back to you if you put it out there,and it did."

With the support from Hanna's artists and tenants, operating Game Over Tattoo during the pandemic became manageable. As a traveling artist, Hanna has friends all over, and modeled many of his shop's COVID-19 protocols after their practices.

"We took a lot of resources from how others were doing, from London to California, down South," Hanna said.

At one time, Game Over Tattoo required clients to take their temperatures at the door, gave themrubber baskets for their personal items that came with masks and put up curtains between tattoo stations.

The best adaptation Game Over Tattoo went through has been the transition to fewer walk-ins, Hanna said.

"Walk-ins are great, but its nice going into your day knowing what you have to tattoo rather than jump in on the fly," Hanna said. "Happy employees put out good work, less stress."

Many of the appointments Hanna and his employees are seeing are from previous clientele, but Hanna has seen a significant number of new faces come into the shop.

The increase in clientele has Game Over Tattoo booked out for the rest of the year, but the shop is also going through an expansion that Hanna hopes will be complete by December. Game Over will add three more chairs, making room for more artists and clients.

"Were seeing a lot of new customers," Hanna said. "I think people spent so much time online they started checking out people they probably wouldnt have and things they wouldnt have. So its been cool meeting new people."

For Joel Brennan and the employeesat Steadfast Tattoo Parlor in Summit Township, the pandemic was a time for opportunity.

"We took time we wouldnt typically have off and we remodeled the whole shop, the floors, renovated the building next door. ... COVIDwas really a blessing in a lot of ways because it probably wouldve taken years to happen," Brennan, co-owner of Steadfast, said.

Brennan and the other artists expanded fromtattooing to printing T-shirts andpaintings, giving the staff an outlet tocreate a new revenue stream.

"I can say confidently that the ecosystem of our shop wouldnt be as fruitful if it werent for the shutdown," Brennan said.

If the shutdown brought opportunitiesthat helped Steadfast, it also brought along changes to the shop's operations.

"It was a delicate thing, a lot of people were super freaked out about (dealing with the public)," Brennan said. "So, I tried, without bending to my own morals, to be as fully respectful to people as Icould, and the way we managed that was going fully appointment-only, and you had to come by yourself."

Moving to an appointment-only business model assisted in keeping up with COVID-19 safety precautions, but resulted in an overflow of appointments.

"What kind of screwed us is we already had all these people who were scheduled before COVID, andwe had to fit in all these new people to our schedules," Brennan said. "The majority of us are booked for the year. ... None of us are taking appointmentsfor the rest of the year."

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But Brennan doesn't want the fully bookedschedules to deter anyone from calling the shop in the off chance there's an opening. Plans are being made at Steadfast to make room for walk-ins.

Despite the changes in the tattoo industry,Brennan isn't worried about its future.

"Something thats interesting and unique to tattoos is that nobody can take itfrom you," Brennan said. "Its a social thing, personal thing, stress reliever;people get tattoos for a lot of reasons. Because of that, tattooing isnt going anywhere."

Baylee DeMuth can be reached at 814-450-3425 or Follow her on Twitter @BayleeDeMuth.

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Erie tattoo artists reflect on business during COVID-19. Here's how they're moving forward -

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